Hollywood loves Hollywood. It’s a big reason why The Artist beat out arguably better movies like The Descendants, The Help, and Hugo to win Best Picture in 2011, and it’s why Argo edged out Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty a year later. Movies about movies always seem to get a little more love.
It’s also why La La Land will probably beat out better films like Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, and Hell or High Water this year. That’s not to say writer/director Damien Chazelle’s ode to the bygone musical isn’t good; it’s actually very good, but does have its flaws. And if the voting members of the Academy were actually honest and didn’t just gravitate immediately to the one movie that puts even more of a spotlight on their own particular corner of southern California, I don’t imagine La La Land would win.
If you want to give it Best Song, go for it. “City of Stars” is certainly catchy, and you’ll probably be humming it to yourself for at least a while after the credits roll. And cinematographer Linus Sandgren is even more of a lock to win than the movie itself (which is, yes, pretty much a lock). Heck, I would even be okay with Chazelle winning for Best Director; his vision and his finesse at staging a lot of intricate, single-take tracking shots is admirable. But Best Picture? No sir. I can think of no less than a half-dozen other movies that were better, more complete, and much closer to flawless.
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling headline La La Land as a pair of late-twenty-somethings trying to make their way in entertainment. He’s a jazz pianist named Seb, and she’s Mia, an aspiring actress. They keep bumping into each other, first in the now-famous opening dance-on-the-freeway number, then weeks later at a club where he’s performing, and finally at an L.A. party. Clearly they’re meant to be together, so they decide to give in to fate.
Stone and Gosling have already played lovebirds in two prior films (Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Gangster Squad), so the chemistry is clearly there, They are adorable together, and their first sing-and-dance number, on a quiet street at sunset (“A Lovely Night”), is a fun throwback to classic musicals like Singin in the Rain. Though Stone and Gosling’s toe-tapping prowess is lacking (you can practically see Gosling counting the steps in his head), the number still manages to work.
The pair’s singing ability is also an unavoidable issue. Much is being made of Gosling’s insistence on practicing piano for several hours a day, and that dedication pays off, but more vocal work would have been good, too, and the same goes for Stone. As for the songs themselves, songwriter Justin Hurwitz hits a home run with “City of Stars” (and we hear it enough times over the course of La La Land’s 128 minutes that it almost feels like we have to like it), but much of the rest of the music is ultimately forgettable.
But…back to our heroes.
Mia and Seb continue their courtship until each’s now-burgeoning career begins to pull them apart. Seb eventually joins up with an old friend (played well by John Legend) in a hip jazz-pop band while Mia develops her own one-woman show, hoping the exposure will finally put her on the path to stardom. Just as in Chazelle’s much better first film Whiplash, the characters are headed toward having to make a choice between a career and love, and watching Mia and Seb wrestle with it (more than 90 minutes in) finally gives the movie some depth and a glimmer of character development. It also provides Stone and Gosling a chance to do some real acting. (Stone, especially, shines.)
There are plenty of moments in La La Land that make it worthy of (at least most of) the fuss. The costumes (in all manner of vibrant colors), the set decoration, and Sandgren’s inventive camerawork are all top-notch. With a little more time spent on the characters, a few more days of Stone and Gosling shoring up their singing and dancing, and a couple more memorable songs for them to sing, La La Land may actually have been worthy of that golden trophy…which it will no doubt be taking home at the end of February.